My earliest recollection of grade school came from foggy brown-tinted photo plates nestled in the back of my head. They were fleeting images of dark, dank hallways and the smell of old wood, old people and poverty. I remember out back there was an empty lot where someone had planted a vegetable garden. Across the street was the ‘Little Sisters of the Poor’ home for indigent and homeless people. My sister and I were warned never to approach or talk to any of them.
The ancient rundown apartment building where my mother and sister and I lived for several years was located in Irving Park. At one time, Irving Park was ‘the’ prestigious neighborhood for all the new wealth coming out of a bustling Saint Paul. By the late forties, our asphalt shingled six-plex was one of the last vestiges of an old neighborhood that had long since passed its prime.
After World War Two, Irving Park had become the primary dumping ground for DPs (displaced persons) from Europe who migrated up from Chicago and New York. They were housed in tenements scattered about the neighborhood until permanent housing could be found for them.
My mother, newly widowed, worked downtown as a short order cook in the First National Bank building. As a devout Catholic, St Louis Catholic Grade School probably seemed like the natural fit for her kids. As a single parent, I’m guessing she got a cut on the tuition.
Known among the locals as the “Little French Church,” the Church of Saint Louis, King of France has been an integral part of downtown Saint Paul for more than 125 years. It was created specifically to serve the French-speaking citizens of Saint Paul and was one of the national parishes to be established by Archbishop Ireland in 1868.
|Parishioners entering St. Louis church (photo credit to Minnesota Historical Society)|
I don’t remember much about first or second grade when my sister and I walked to St. Louis Catholic Grade School each day. By third grade our mother had built a home in Highland Park, a half hour streetcar ride away. Each morning we would take the trolley to downtown St. Paul with our mother. Each night, my sister and I would take the rickety transit back home again alone.
The school had four main class rooms, two classes in each. There was a lunchroom in the basement and space for hanging winter coats and boots behind each classroom. Unlike a lot of the public grade schools, St. Louis School had no sports programs, clubs, student organizations or learning opportunities outside of the classroom. When school was out, the playground emptied pretty quickly.
|7th Street (photo credit to Minnesota Historical Society)|
Unlike a lot of the schools around our home in Highland Park, St. Louis Grade School was anything but vanilla and main stream. Students came from the surrounding neighborhoods like Irving Park, East Saint Paul, West Saint Paul, and the projects behind the capitol. It was an eclectic, mostly poor, somewhat mixed-race group of students; clearly reflective of their communities of origin.
The teachers were all nuns. They were tough-minded, serious, no bullshit kind of instructors who had the full backing of our parents. We understood that punishment at school was always favored in lieu of a call to our parents. Catholic doctrine had a firm grip on our young lives while in school and often followed us home as well.
The grade school was started in 1873, closed in 1962 and the building razed in 1966. I was a member of the graduating class of 1957. Statistics aside, that would mean that there aren’t a lot of graduates still around. So, of course, the writer in me wondered ‘what ever happened to all those alumni?’
All of this reminiscing about eight years of early childhood education came to a head a couple of months ago. I was staring up at a hot California sun one afternoon and wondering out loud if the school had ever had an all-class reunion of any sort. My wife, always the Alpha, take-charge kind of person, suggested I take the next step and find out for myself. So I messaged the church on their Facebook page to find out. Surprising even myself, I got a pleasant response from Ramona, the church secretary, who said the answer was no. There had never been any kind of class reunion.
So, again, stepping out of my comfort level, I wrote up a notice of inquiry and Ramona put it on the Sunday church bulletin and on their Facebook page. I kind of knew the chances of an outpouring of interest was probably not realistic but thought it was worth the effort.
It’s been almost two weeks now and only two nibbles. Statistically there probably wouldn’t have been a lot of alumni left to see the notice. Past graduates, if still living, would be few and far between. It’s safe to assume that many have passed on, moved elsewhere or are out of the social media mainstream.
That said, it would seem that an important vestige of the history of the ‘Little French Church’ is quickly fading away. St. Louis Catholic Grade School will soon be just a footnote on Catholic education in Saint Paul. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I lived it and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
It was a time of growing social, sexual, and political change within the church itself. Old downtown Saint Paul was a skeleton of its former self. Then there were the lives of those young, naïve boys and girls, anxious to escape the oversight of the nuns, and anxious to taste the freedom that high school promised.
Most of us survived that transition and welcomed the kaleidoscope of experiences that the Sixties would to bring to us. That said, it would have been nice, just one more time, to rekindle friendships and share those experiences with my classmates from so long ago.